Mark Zuckerberg wants to reinvent Facebook. He has been telling analysts and journalists that he wants the company to lead the way to a completely different internet. He said:
In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company … In many ways the metaverse is the ultimate expression of social technology.
So what does the Facebook chief executive mean by “metaverse company”? And what will the company look like if and when it gets there?
Where it comes from
The term “metaverse” is used to describe the vision whereby the internet will evolve into a virtual world. The idea was first conceptualised in 1992 by the American novelist Neal Stephenson in his science fiction classic, Snow Crash. It foresees the internet as a 3D virtual living space, where individuals dip in and out, interacting with one another in real time.
Many in Silicon Valley still view the metaverse as the future. For example, Google is heavily invested in augmented reality (AR), which is where you use technology to look at the real world but with digital 3D objects layered on top. And rumours swirl that Apple is building products like glasses for experiencing virtual spaces.
But Facebook appears the most committed of all to this new vision. In his quest to turn Facebook into a metaverse company, Zuckerberg is seeking to build a system where people move between virtual reality (VR), AR and even 2D devices, using realistic avatars of themselves where appropriate. Here they will work, socialise, share things and have other experiences, while still probably using the internet for some tasks such as searches which are similar to how we use it now.
Owning not only the Facebook platform but also WhatsApp, Instagram and VR headset maker Oculus gives Zuckerberg a big head start in making this a reality. Collectively, these brands give Facebook an unbeatable number of customer relationships, and all the important knowledge for creating a desirable virtual world: how people behave online, their personalities, likes and dislikes, gait, eye movement and even emotional states.
To help build the metaverse, Facebook’s engineers will have to make a success of immersive realism. Imagine a computer game with 2.9 billion avatars and the artificial intelligence that harvests all known information on them. The company has created a division called Reality Labs, whose researchers are working on creating the defining quality of the metaverse, namely “presence” – the feeling of being in a space with others. Unsurprisingly, this team is heavily staffed by people with gaming backgrounds.
Facebook is also ploughing money into software to enable activities like “teleporting” into another place like an office so that it seems as if you are really there, as well as physical kit like AR glasses and more advanced VR headsets.